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In Memory Of The Quiet Monkee: Michael Nesmith At the Town Hall, Tuesday, April 16th, 2013, Reviewed

(Mike Nesmith was clearly overjoyed yet translucent two months ago at Town Hall, this review is from eight years earlier at the same venue -IL)

Sometimes a great notion? Michael Nesmith’s decision to introduce each song with a vignette setting the songs up, in his 105 minute solo plus band performance at the Town Hall on Tuesday evening,  was a notion, how great minds might differ upon.

Here is the concept. Before performing “Tomorrow And Me” off Pretty Much Your Standard Ranch Stash, Nesmith set up the song by asking us to imagine we are watching a 1930s black and white film noir, where a couple breaks up outside a nightclub, and the man drives off trying to place the memory of her in a place it won’t hurt him.

Here is the reasoning:  Nesmith is sharing with us how he imagines the songs having happened.

Here is the problem: a 1930s film noir has nothing to do with “Tomorrow And Me” and even if it did, Nesmith’s uninspired description, the lack of crispness in his words,  still wouldn’t add a damn thing to the song.In some ways, this isn’t a deal breaker, it doesn’t destroy the set, but it maims it, and it is distracting and not a good idea at all.

 Starting with one of his earliest songs, the Monkees  “Papa John’s Blues” and spanning 50 years till he reaches 2006’s “Ray”, and including the show highlight, a three song suite off The Prison, the songs, the singing, the band, all of them are everything you could possibly hope for in a Michael Nesmith concert. They are superb, show me a concert with a song as great as “Marie’s Theme” and… well, I don’t know what I would show you. This is country rock as artistic temperament, powerful beautiful half a century worth, though with the accent on the mid-1970s, songs performed to perfection.

 But the concept is an amazing irritant, with the exception of the song suite and the Elephant Parts songs (two of em!), they get in the way. This was certainly true of one of his Nesmith’s best songs ever, “Different Drum”. The set up is two prospective lovers in a  bistro in France  and the man is telling the woman why the relationship would not work. Well, the France is irrelevant and the set up  is completely self-evident. Nesmith’s recorded version is country folk, with a jaunty feeling and a wryness all the more appreciable from a man so young. But between the vignette and the dragged sorry coda, “we have to learn how not to live together”, it is an unhappy song. Maybe it always was but rock and roll is happy songs about unhappy things and the “… if you live without me” kicker is too painful.

 Still, Nesmith isn’t an unhappy lead singer. He revels in the audience adulation and he revels in the sheer musicianship of his backing band. Mostly, we are getting the slow swing country Nesmith personified on his 70s albums: the intensity isn’t lyrical as such, it is too prosaic, but rather a consistent sense of a story told often but differently. The “Joanne”  and “Silver Moon” forever connected through the girls name used in both songs, have the skimming feel of a story spooling out, but not the vision of beauty the sound has but the lyric misses. What makes it so much pleasure is the intensity of the sound but not really the thought.

 Part of that comes from the lean Texans almost drawl, Nesmith’s vocals are both soft and clear but more than capable of staying firm. Some times he sounds his age, often he sounds timeless, and there is a concentrated state of grace about the man’s entire performance.  The voice caresses yet it is declarative, laid back but definitive. Nesmith the Monkee was also smart but laid back. Remember that episode where he outsmarts a computer? Nesmith’s ease is beguiling but not entirely real, it seems as much contemplative surrealism as story telling or reality based.

 The sheer wealth of material is also beguiling. A handful of crowd pleasers  keep the audience enthralled,  “Some Of Shelly’s Blues” – a terrific song about not breaking up (if you have ever wondered about this, Nesmith states its theme explicitly in the song introduction), a bluesy “Cruisn’” and a raunchy rockin’ “Grand Ennui”, are all showstoppers. The last song of the evening, a superb “Thanx For The Ride” with theFirst National Band’s late Red Rhodes pedal guitar on tape mixed in, is not just a showstopper, it is a remembrance of things past and a game ender.

 Best of all are the songs off The Prison. Written as a short story with seven songs complementing the story “A book with a soundtrack)”, The Prison is probably the genesis of this tour concept (Nesmith’s first tour in 22 years) and it is certainly the best manifestation of it. The story is about a man in a prison who opens the door of the prison and finds himself free in an open field. So he goes back into the prison and tells his girlfriend to come outside and see the field but when she does, she doesn’t see anything and goes back inside. So he goes back outside and has no idea what to do about the situation. NOW,

 1. That is a billion times better than the stories he had been telling all night.

 And

 2. The three songs are a musical maelstrom, or maybe that’s the wrong word, a swirling  soundscape like an acoustic Phish in pop mode, interrupted by subtle pauses and one note segues and somewhere near the middle of the beginning of the end, this: “hidden behind all the logic one finds without the truth” repeated over and over again like a mantra.

 Nesmith is always going his own way, he won’t listen to me ever. And I’ve read some reviews and they tend to love the show not despite but as well. Me, I love it despite.

 Grade: A-

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